The Peacock Throne
Home of the Earl of Danbury
March 28, 1802
The tiny snick of the latch sounded. Anthony rubbed at the stubble on his chin and turned a jaundiced eye to the intruder. Pale and dishevelled, his usually unflappable valet came to a halt in the centre of the room.
“What is it?”
“I’m sorry, sir. It’s y…your father.” The valet paused, seeming at a loss.
Anthony sat up, kicking at the sheets. “Spit it out.”
“Jane found him. He is…. He’s been murdered, sir.”
Anthony clutched the edge of his bed. “What?”
“Your father.” James’s voice died away. He waved a hand vaguely towards the hall.
What a ridiculous mistake. Setting his jaw, Anthony jumped to his feet and marched to the door. He would straighten this all out. “Where?” He demanded as he grabbed the knob.
“In his bedchamber.”
Servants clustered in the long corridor, their voices an agitated buzz. The frightened gazes following his progress clutched at him. Something was truly wrong. He swallowed hard against the sudden fear. He picked up speed and barreled through the door to his father’s bedroom, driven by the lash of desperate hope.
The old gentleman lay huddled on the bed but there was no mistaking his posture for sleep.
Anthony’s eyes shied from the form, staring instead at the blood-soaked bedclothes. Surely, the figure was too small to be his robust father? But he could not force his gaze back to the bed, not just yet. He surveyed the rest of the room. There was no sign of struggle. Nothing appeared out of place, but then, he had rarely entered this sanctum sanctorum of his father’s experience.
Hand over his mouth and nose to block the odour of slaughter, he steeled himself to approach and examine the body. A curved knife with an engraved ivory handle protruded from his father’s chest. His face grew hot as he tried to absorb the image without allowing it to pierce him with its reality. Calling on the reserves of his fortitude, he forced his gaze to his father’s face.
A grimace obliterated the familiar features. No sign remained of the vigorous, cheerful man Anthony knew so well.
He grasped his father’s hand and found it cold and stiff. His thoughts tilted and slid, scattering like dropped coins. His head throbbed in relentless rhythm. He wasn’t sure how long he hunched there, but when at last he straightened his shoulders had grown stiff. With a concerted effort of will he collected himself. Releasing that hand was the most difficult thing he had ever done. As if he were giving his father permission to slip away from him. He clenched his trembling hands into fists. Someone would suffer for this.
“James.” At least he had found his voice—even if it did sound strained.
“Yes, sir.” The young man started to attention, swiping at the tears on his face.
“Send a footman for the magistrate and another to Bow Street for a runner. Then come and help me dress. I’ll not receive him in my nightclothes.”
James nodded, and ran to do his bidding.
Anthony hesitated. Gritting his teeth, he stepped from the room. The number of servants in the hall had swelled. Their anxious muttering stopped as he emerged. Stricken faces told of their distress. He needed to reassure them somehow though his innards swarmed like a nest of wasps.
He had to clear his throat before he could speak, and even then when he addressed them it was in a voice roughened by tightly reigned emotion. “His Lordship has… he has passed away.”
The silence might have deafened him. They already knew. He cleared his throat and tried again.
“Bow Street is being summoned.” A measure of his fury slipped into his tone. “When the runner arrives, I expect you to cooperate with him to the fullest. The murderer will be found and brought to justice. No matter where he lies.” Grief strangled him. He didn’t know what else he would have said, but it did not signify. He could not continue. A path opened before him as if he were Moses parting the Red Sea. Anthony made his way through the throng, accepting the murmured condolences with what grace he could muster.
The world had gone mad. There was no other explanation.
James’s quiet return interrupted his muddled thoughts. Tamping down the consciousness of his loss in a flurry of activity, Anthony dressed and flung orders about with little consideration for where they landed.
His cravat was in a hopeless tangle. He hurled the thing on the grate. He needed to be doing something. Why was the runner taking so long? His eyes burned and he knew that if he sat down, he would succumb to the pain. He scraped a hand through his hair. He could not sit. The murderer must be caught.
Ever meticulous, James approached with a fresh square of linen, but Anthony waved him off. He would not spend the morning preening while his father’s corpse lay down the hall and nothing was being done about it. By the same token he needed to show due respect. He waved his valet back and grudgingly submitted to his ministrations. The instant James stepped away, Anthony stalked from his room and nearly overturned a maid carrying a breakfast tray redolent of ham and fresh bread. He gripped her shoulders to steady her, then shooed her away.
Taking up position in the drawing room, Anthony prowled the edges as if he suspected the killer might yet be lurking beneath one of the couches. His throat remained constricted, his eyes hot. He couldn’t sit. He examined the familiar pattern of the red and gold Turkey carpets. Ran a hand along the smooth back of the silk upholstered couch as he passed by. He paused and stared out the wide front window for a moment, but a handful of gawkers stood on the street, staring and pointing at the house. Londoners seemed to have supernatural ability when it came to sensing tragedy or scandal. Anthony pulled away from the window, retreating to pace about the room again.
It wasn’t until a footman at last ushered in the runner, that Anthony stilled. He had a task now. He needed to get the thief-taker’s measure. Large and thick-boned, the bruiser’s heavy features were set in what he probably meant to be a reassuring expression. In short, the new arrival looked more likely to commit a murder than to solve one.
He extended a meaty paw towards Anthony, who shook it reluctantly. He was unaccustomed to such familiarity from people he did not know, but the imperative to offer consideration to those of lower rank than himself overrode the etiquette ingrained in him. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so very bad to have a formal police force as other nations did. This man was none too clean. Stubble peppered his pockmarked cheeks and he wore a vest, but no jacket. His faded red shirt, a mark of his office, appeared grimy. His hand rested on the cudgel tucked into his belt, as if he anticipated using it at any moment.
“Name’s Rodney Perkins. I understand there’s been a bit o’ mischief.”
“My father has been murdered. I believe that qualifies as more than mischief.”
“Right you are. No offence intended I’m sure, Lord Danbury.”
Anthony grimaced at the unaccustomed title. “Do not call me that. The title has not been confirmed. It’s… it is too soon. I am Viscount Graham.”
“As you like, sir. As you like.” Perkins rubbed his hands together and looked about. “Where’s the body?”
“This way. We left everything as we found it.” Anthony led the man up the broad front stair and down the hall to the door of the bedchamber.
Anthony’s brow creased. “I don’t believe so, his valet may answer better than I. The staff reported nothing missing. I’m certain they would have come to me if they discovered something had been stolen.” He was babbling. Taking a deep breath he ushered Perkins into his father’s room.
No fire lit the grate, leaving the room chilled despite fine draperies and thick carpets. At the sight of his mother’s portrait above the fireplace an irrational urge to throw a blanket over it seized him. She shouldn’t have to look down on this atrocity. He hooked his thumbs in the pocket of his waistcoat so the other man would not see that his hands were trembling.
He surveyed the scene again, forcing himself to look at the body with dispassion. He must be alert to anything that might help uncover who had done this.
The runner swaggered about the room as if he were strolling in Hyde Park. He bent over the corpse and plucked out the knife. The slight sucking sound as it exited the body caused Anthony’s stomach to heave. For a ghastly moment he feared he would be ill.
Intent on the knife he held to the light, Perkins seemed not to notice Anthony’s discomfort. “I’ll need t’ talk to the servants, of course.”
Anthony nodded to the butler who hovered anxiously behind him in the hall. “See to it will you, Hemmings?” he said in a choked voice.
“Yes, sir.” Hemmings scuttled away.
“When did you find ‘im, Lord Da—Graham?”
“I didn’t find him. The commotion woke me at about seven. I understand one of the maids took in his breakfast and found him then.”
“When did you see ‘im last?” Perkins scrutinized Anthony.
“I spoke to him shortly before I left for the Cornwallis’s ball last night. Around nine o’clock.”
“Did ‘is Lordship act scared or upset?”
“Perhaps a little distracted, but certainly not as if he expected to be murdered.” Anthony eyed the runner as if he were a particularly loathsome insect. How could anyone believe that he would not have done everything in his power to have prevented the murder if he’d had any inkling that such a potential existed? “If he had been upset, I would have inquired as to the reason.”
Perkins met his gaze then nodded, apparently choosing to ignore Anthony’s sharpness. “What did you speak of with the ol’ gent before you left?”
“I wished him a good night and reminded him I’d be out late. Is that relevant?”
“You didn’t see him when you got home?” Perkins knelt beside the bed and looked beneath.
“As I said, I stayed out late. I supposed he had long since been in bed.”
The runner paced the room. “Did you see or hear anythin’ out o’ the way?”
“I wish to God I had. I could have intervened.” Anthony couldn’t keep the misery from his voice. He’d failed his father at the hour of his most desperate need.
“You recognize the knife?” Perkins held the blade up for Anthony’s inspection.
The question gave Anthony a focus, enabling him to force away his guilt for the moment and think logically. He re-examined the knife. Minutely detailed in the pale ivory of the handle, a peacock unfurled its tail in challenge. “No, I don’t. It’s strange that a murderer would use so fine a weapon, and more so that he would leave it behind. Anyone would recognize it if they had seen it before.”
“You might be surprised.” Perkins snorted. “Who were your father’s enemies?”
Blood rushed to Anthony’s face. A hot defence of his father’s honour hovered on his lips. He breathed in through his nose. The man was only trying to perform his duties. “He had no enemies. There may have been a few men he quarreled with over the years, but none with the kind of grudge that would lead to murder. My father was a generous landlord, and upright in his business dealings.”
The runner pushed his lips together and out, obviously unconvinced of the earl’s virtue. At least he had the sense to keep any arch comments to himself.
“I guess we’re done for now then, sir.” Skepticism flattened his voice. “Though I may need to speak with you later.”
“Good. I need t’ see the staff now, starting with ‘is valet.”
“I’d like to join you for these interviews.”
Perkins cleared his throat. “That idn’t a good idea, sir. The skivvies won’t wanna tell me a thing with you hovering nearby.”
Implacable, Anthony stepped forward. “They’ll understand I am interested only in finding my father’s murderer. I’ll make it clear that any minor indiscretions will be overlooked, in exchange for their assistance in this matter.”
Perkins visibly weighed his options. Anthony smirked. He was the client—the one who would pay the bounty when the murderer was caught. With a heavy sigh, Perkins conceded the point, apparently deciding to save his clout for when it might really be required.
Anthony led the way to the drawing room where he rang for his father’s valet. He gestured for the runner to sit and took the seat opposite him on the settee, then stood again. Repose did not suit his humor. He paced near the fireplace, extending his hands to the flames.
Williams appeared swiftly. Spotless and straight-backed, only the dignified old man’s face betrayed his grief. His eyes and nose were red and watering, his skin blotchy from recent weeping.
Anthony turned fully back to the room, blinking rapidly to prevent the valet’s sorrow from settling on him and drawing him into a display of sentiment before this runner.
“Sir, may I extend my condolences on your loss,” Williams said, his voice high and tight.
“Thank you, Williams.” The servant’s obvious mourning nearly shredded Anthony’s thin veneer of control. He cleared his throat. “Please answer this man’s questions as well as you are able, so we can find the person who did this.”
“I’ll do anything to help, sir.” The elderly retainer rubbed shaking palms together.
Rodney Perkins adjusted positions in his seat. “What time did Lord Danbury retire last night?”
“About ten o’clock, sir. He felt poorly, and went straight to sleep after he changed into his bedclothes.”
“Was the old gent angry or upset?”
“He did seem a bit upset, but I couldn’t say why.”
“Try.” Perkins ordered.
The valet wrung his hands and peered about, as if looking for an escape route. His reluctance to discuss private matters filled the room like a fog. Anthony sat forward until he caught the man’s gaze. He nodded slightly, and Williams gave in. “Well—it’s only an impression you understand, but I think perhaps he got something by the evening mail that upset him.”
“What was it?” The runner perked up like a hound scenting a fox.
“He had several letters. One though was…” Williams searched for the word he wanted. “Different—foreign maybe.”
“Yes sir, on fine paper it were and scented with some perfume. I could smell it halfway across the room, I could.” As Williams warmed to his story, his native Yorkshire accent broadened. “The seal were odd too. It were a peacock, and the wax itself looked like a peacock.” Williams halted. His hands flapped as if motion could convey meaning that words could not.
“What do you mean it looked like a peacock?” Anthony asked.
“Well, sir, the wax were different colors like—sort of swirled and shiny?” The elderly valet’s tone turned the statement into a question.
Anthony nodded gravely, not understanding what the man meant, but impatient to hear what else he had to say. “Go on.”
“The handwriting looked different too. I knew it were foreign as soon as I spied it. His Lordship turned quite red when he read the letter. I thought he meant to tear it up, but he din’t. He got up—din’t even finish reading the others—he went straight to his desk and began writing.”
“What was he writing?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“What’d you do with the letter?” Perkins asked.
“I never touched it. I imagine it’s still on his desk. The maids know not to touch anythin’ on his Lordship’s desk”
“Lead on then.” Perkins planted his hands on the arms of his chair and levered himself upright.
“Where is this desk?”
Anthony took charge of the short procession across the hall to the study. He gestured to the desk standing at the far end of the room. Close on his heels, Perkins nearly trod on him in his eagerness to inspect the desk where a partially open letter lay in plain view.
Of good quality stationery, the paper looked as described. From where Anthony stood, he could already smell the perfume permeating the missive. The distinctive scent made him think of warmer climates. Ornate script flowed and looped across the page in a manner no Englishman would countenance. Anthony picked up the letter and removed the covering page to better observe the seal. He had never seen sealing wax like it before, a brilliant swirl of iridescent blue, purple, and green flecked with gold. It did indeed resemble a peacock’s feather. The imprint of a peacock, tiny and intricate in the wax, looked like the engraving on the knife used to slay his father.
While Anthony examined the seal, Perkins read the letter. With a nod they traded objects of interest. The letter’s odd script and ceremonial tenor made Anthony’s mouth go dry.
I am writing as the representative of his most Royal and Gracious Highness Shah Zahir-ud-din Akbar of the Great Mughal Empire, etc. In the year 1758, you and the crew of your ship, the Centaur, were involved in the nefarious theft of the Peacock Throne from our kingdom. Sir, you may have imagined you had escaped vengeance, but your day of reckoning has come. Our emissary will visit you. The time has come for you to assuage your conscience, or suffer the consequences dictated by perfidy.